The Pennsylvania senatorial candidate debate between Republican incumbent Rick Santorum and Democratic state auditor Bob Casey Jr. on Monday night had none of the rhetorical fireworks of the finger-pointing and antagonism displayed during their Oct. 12 showdown in Pittsburgh.
Instead the two candidates worked to define one another while further distancing themselves from President Bush in their final debate of the year.
Moderators George Stephanopoulos from ABC News and Jim Gardner from ABC affiliate WPVI-TV covered the gamut of hot-button issues, including Iraq, North Korea, immigration, Social Security and Iran, but the exchanges between Santorum and Casey, while more substantive in nature than last week, ostensibly reduced the choice to "a candidate of status quo" who consistently votes alongside the president, and the beneficiary of a popular two-term governor who waffles on decisive policy questions.
A Nuclear North Korea
The two contrasted sharply on most issues.
When pressed on what the United States should do if both North Korea and Iran acquire nuclear weapons, Casey said the government should exercise "every option on the table" before launching an attack on the president.
"I think this administration should make sure that it listens to military experts, something the Bush administration has not done very well when it comes to Iraq," he said.
Santorum established early his "nonanswer" charge, which he leveled at Casey first after this response and continued throughout he debate.
While Casey emphasized enforcing sanctions, Santorum criticized his opponent for reportedly opposing the missile defense system, which could be used to counter North Korea's efforts to build an intercontinental ballistic missile and bunker-buster bombs that could potentially penetrate underground nuclear facilities.
"We need to have the tools on the table," Santorum said, "and he will not put them there."
Santorum also said that he would support "without question" a military strike on Iran if that country got close to developing a nuclear weapon. North Korea, he claimed, would use the bomb chiefly for defensive purposes while Iran "has told us they will use it for offensive purposes."
He described his clash with President Bush over contingency plans for Iran, a country that Santorum sees as the focal point of the war on terror.
Iraq: Debating the Defense Secretary
But on Iraq, the largest issue looming in this race and the primary reason Santorum trails Casey in virtually every poll, the candidates' main objective was to distance themselves from the administration, almost to erect a buffer for their proposals.
Santorum said he had been "criticized by some" for requesting "a second look at it," but he remains emphatic about maintaining the U.S. effort in the country.
Casey repeated his call for greater accountability on Iraq within the government and to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"We need new leadership when it comes to Iraq. One way to do that, and one measure of accountability, is to replace Don Rumsfeld. Mr. Santorum thinks Mr. Rumsfeld is doing a 'fine' job. I don't," Casey said.
Casey, Santorum retorted, was two-for-two: two questions, two "nonanswers."
Immigration: Amnesty vs. Temporary Worker Program
There wasn't an issue brought to the floor that was immune to politicking. On immigration, Santorum listed border security, an improved employer verification system and the establishment of a temporary worker program as his three priorities.
While Casey did not address specific proposals head-on, he has gone on the record offering to support the Senate bill, which Santorum dismisses as "amnesty." But Casey played off Santorum's enthusiasm for the issue as sheer opportunism.
"What we're seeing now is a candidate in the closing days of a campaign with a lot of new interesting positions," he said. Santorum had "been down in Washington for 16 years, and about 16 weeks ago he discovered an issue that he thought would get him some traction and use this issue in a way that is not moving the ball forward."
Even amid a string of feisty exchanges between the senator and his challenger, Santorum followed up with a line that was almost startling in its frankness.
"One of the reasons I made this an issue in this campaign is it's one of the few things I actually take a position on," he said. "I know you might be shocked that I actually want an issue to be a part of this campaign instead of where my children sleep at night," he continued, referring to the swirling controversy over whether his primary residence is in Pennsylvania or Virginia.
How to Save Social Security
As the debate shifted to domestic issues, Casey cast Santorum's call to privatize Social Security "a scheme that will drain the Social Security trust fund by a trillion dollars," while Santorum summarized Casey's plan as "Do nothing ... his answer is 'grow the economy' and in the next breath he says 'we need to raise taxes.'"
"We've got to make sure we do everything possible to privatization," Casey said.
"Said nothing, again," Santorum shot back.
Closing Arguments, Continuing Debate
In the end, both candidates tried to position themselves as agents of change: Casey, promising a fresh face and a "new direction" for the state, and Santorum, casting himself as a doer who ushered Pennsylvania into the new age.
"On one side you have a candidate of the status quo, stay the course, more of the same," Casey said in his closing statement. "That's Senator Santorum. I represent the position of change, and moving this country in a new direction for middle-class families."
In his closing statement, Santorum tried to paint Casey as someone who had gotten his position in government because of who his father was, the late Gov. Robert Casey.
"I've worked hard for the people of Pennsylvania, and I've worked hard to try to make a difference," he said. "Why? Because I had to earn this job. It's not a job I inherited because of my last name. You know, what matters most to you? Things that were given to you, or things that you worked hard to earn?"